WASHINGTON — He came to the hearing armed with a four-page statement and three positive audits of his slaughterhouse. But when it was Steve Mendell's turn to testify, he could only watch as a House panel rolled the video.
Cows at his Southern California plant were shown prodded, jammed with forklifts, falling to the ground and yanked back up so they could be dragged to slaughter — a violation of federal rules.
Mendell's eyes were grim behind his glasses and his cheeks were red. He occasionally propped his head in his hand as he watched and at one point appeared to wince.
When the ordeal was over, Mendell, the president of Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., paused, then acknowledged under questioning from lawmakers that, contrary to the statement he had delivered under oath, it appeared that downed cattle at his plant had entered the nation's food supply.
So-called "downer" cattle have largely been barred from the food supply since a mad cow disease scare in 2003 because they pose a higher risk for that disease and other illnesses, partly because they often wallow in feces.
The panel's chairman, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., asked Mendell whether it was logical to conclude from the videos that at least two downer cows had entered the food supply.
"That would be logical, yes, sir," Mendell said.
"Has your company ever illegally slaughtered, processed or sold a downer cow?" Stupak asked.
"I didn't think we had, sir," Mendell said.
Asked about the discrepancy with his written testimony, Mendell said, "I had not seen what I saw here today."
Mendell was appearing under subpoena before the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee. He was a no-show at a committee hearing last month.
It was Mendell's first public appearance since the undercover video led to his plant's shutdown and last month's beef recall, the largest in U.S. history. The recall stretched back two years, and Agriculture Department officials have said most of the meat has been consumed. Some 50-million pounds of the beef went to federal nutrition programs, mostly school lunches.
No illnesses have been reported, and Agriculture Department officials have insisted there is minimal risk. But Stupak noted that the incubation period for mad cow disease can be a dozen years or more.